MN Bridge Collapse: What DIDN'T They Do Wrong?
The New York Times reports that the failure of the Interstate 35W bridge in downtown Minneapolis had many fathers. A study by Gray Plant Mooty, a Minneapolis law firm hired by the state legislature, indicates that the collapse was caused by bad design, bad maintenance, bad inspections and bad enforcement. "In their 84-page report, the investigators laid out a pattern of missed opportunities and policy violations: inspection reports that failed to quantify the severity of corrosion, officials who later said they had not known that their duties included reviewing such inspections and a lack of special provisions for where heavy equipment should be placed for the construction work." Needless to say, the post-tragedy investigation has turned into partisan politics and finger-pointing. “It appears that some of what was happening was due to a lack of funding and communication problems,” said State Representative Bernie Lieder, a Democrat who is co-chairman of the committee that assigned the investigation. “You have to say that the governor bears some responsibility.” Seems to me there's plenty of blame to go around. The "accident" on August 1, 2007 killed thirteen people and injured 145 others.
For want of a nail the shoe was lost For want of a shoe the horse was lost... There was a time when I read summaries of all bills and amendments thereto in our state legislature. It led to asking myself, "Who is the most expensive person on the state payroll?" Might it be the House committee chair who loosened state pension formulas and eligibility requirements (such as giving teachers service credit for years worked in other states!)? Millions of unfunded pension liabilities resulted from his benevolence to select groups and, sometimes, to individuals. Finally I concluded the winner was the state senator who did the trucking industry's bidding by wangling higher limits on truck weight. The extra wear and tear on roads and bridges has and will continue to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Probably a really good idea to avoid walking across the Mackinaw Bridge this Memorial Day weekend, an annual event. I'll put it this way. It's a very understressed bridge with very good maintenance, only about 1/2 way through it's life-span (pun intended, sorry, I couldn't resist). But having thousands of people walking across the bridge puts a massive weight onto it, much more than seen with normal traffic. Sounds counter-intuitive, but it is correct. Put another way, a 4000 pound (roughly average) car with say 3 car-lengths between it and the car in front of it, even on a heavy traffic day, adds up to significantly less weight than thousands of 200 pound human beings walking at close quarters. You might, for example, get twenty 200 pound humans in the area of one 4000 pound car. So that works out roughly the same. But we're talking about people walking en masse - so we're looking at a potential for 400% to 500% the average load on Big Mac on the annual walk. I avoid this walk every year and hope that one day, the Big Mac doesn't simply cry "uncle" while there are thousands of pedestrians walking it.
OK, The replacement cost of the bridge is around $250M Yep, that's a ton less than what I expected. Sorry. I'm mentally comparing it to other urban interstate bridges, and many of those are in the two-to-five billion dollars range. I suppose this is a relatively "smaller" bridge, with really no piers "in the water," which increases a bridge's cost dramatically. Also, I suppose there isn't much "traffic" under this bridge -- no deep-draft ocean-going vessels. So, yeah, I didn't think about that. Still, far-sighted communities that have developed light rail systems over the past couple of decades ARE reaping benefits from them now. Sure, the anti-mass-transit types were just as venomously against those systems as they were developed, but now those systems are taking a substantial amount of vehicles off of the road systems in those areas. Four-dollar-per-gallon gas really helps change "some" minds about the value of light rail transit systems....
I am actually a proponent of light rail, and would like to see it replace the park and ride as well as many other routes where there is high bus traffic or otherwise a high demand to go between two places. I do believe that rail can alter development and therefore make sense in the long run despite a seemingly poor ROI in the near term. Having said all that, so far, Houston has blown it badly. First thing they did was put in a rail where it was really challenging to seperate it from other traffic. Then they did an extrmely poor job of layout. My advice is to put rail in where it is most obvious first. Then do the challenging parts after you prove that people will use it. Lastly, buildings and neighborhoods that are distressed are the BEST places to condemn for routes, but presently in this country, poor people who own blighted property have some strange immunity to emminent domain, while responsible owners mostly get screwed.